If my mother added anything to the traditional recipe, it was pizzazz. She drenched the loaves in golden honey, sprinkling sugar on top for a bit of sparkle. The cousins? Their fuatha did not impress. One made Easter bread so dry my grandmother Viola said it would choke the birds. Maybe that cousin had learned to make the bread from her, and maybe she’d conveniently forgotten to mention a few key ingredients. If Lent was about seeking forgiveness, Viola was not about to own the sin
Eventually, my parents and siblings and I moved from Pennsylvania to Big Stone Gap, Virginia. My grandmother would drive through four states to join us for Easter. She’d pull up in front of our old Victorian home as we stood in a row like the children from The King and I, ready to unload the essentials from the back of her 1975 Ford Gran Torino station wagon: coolers of fresh scamorza and salami, tins of taralli, and her precious loaves of fuatha, along with those of her sisters.
Once unloaded, my mother would line up the loaves, including her own, and put on the coffee. My father would choose the winner in a blind taste test. There were stakes. Whose was flaky? Whose was tasteless? Which aunt used too much flour? The discussion would last longer than the coffee, but not a crumb ever went to waste, even loaves eliminated in round one. We set aside the too-dry ones to make French toast. We sliced the less-sweet ones for sandwiches with ham and butter and served the pretty loaves for dessert. But only the winner made it to the cake pedestal on Easter Sunday.
After much careful tasting, my dad chose my mom’s fuatha as the best of the bunch because it was moist and sweet (and maybe because he had to live with her). It was the first time an in-law ever took victory from the jaws of my grandmother. Not since the Etruscans had anyone from Lombardia beat the Venetians at their own game—with their own recipe.
The next day, Easter Sunday, dressed up from church, our family gathered in the dining room. At the center sat Mom’s winning fuatha on its pedestal. As we filed silently to our seats, my father called for his mother. She came from the kitchen in her prim suit and hat, looking around like someone owed her money—or at the very least had rifled through her purse. My dyspeptic sister Pia began to weep. Attempting to break the tension, my mother turned to my grandmother, “Mom, is something wrong?”
“You know how it is, Ida. I get a little cranky when I give up sugar for Lent.”
In that case,” my mother said boldly, “try a slice of my fuatha.”
Like an Easter bread sommelier, Viola inspected the slice, sniffed it, raised it to her lips, and took a tiny bite. We all looked on in fear. But then something miraculous happened: After a single chew, she smiled—the first smile we’d seen since her son sandbagged her in the Easter bread competition. Then she nodded, turned to the others, and said, “Let’s eat.”
Adriana Trigiana is the best-selling author of 20 books published in 38 countries. Her latest novel, The Good Left Undone, is out now.